In this article, I plan to write about writing poetry. But in order to write about writing, poetry, I need to write about a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind; to write about Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, I need to write about another book, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; but before I write about that, I must write about the game of football, particularly the Canadian variety of that game as played by the Canadian Football League. But eventually this article will explain that Poetry is the Sound of One Hand Clapping.
The journey begins with a drive to understand metaphor.
At some point in 2006, I became interested to understand why the common language of business, and even life, so often included metaphors from the game of football. In writing that, I refer to metaphors from the North American game rather than the game which is called soccer in North America. The metaphors I’m referring to include such things as being blind-sided, fumbling, dropping the ball, or having a game plan. I’m sure there are others. I was curious why these metaphors seemed to be so particularly compelling to people that they had found their way into the daily language of so many people. So, despite never having watched or been particularly interested in football before, I decided to begin watching to understand what I’d observed.
I wanted to understand the reason for the deep reach of common metaphor.
I decided to watch Canadian football for little reason beyond the fact of the teams being based in Canada – and therefore offering me some sense of connection to the cities of the teams. With that decision made, I decided I would focus my attention on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. That decision was based on a bit of research and a few semi-reasoned notions.
First, Winnipeg (Manitoba) was the city closest to my home at the time, Thunder Bay (Ontario). Choosing a team close to me geographically seemed to fulfill a “home town” connection that people often have for their favorite sports team. So picking the closest one fulfilled a kind of criteria.
Second, I recalled purchasing a second-hand football jersey to wear during a factory job I’d had as a teenager that had the same colours as the Blue Bombers. Clearly, this provided a personal connection to the colours of the team. A kind of personal mythology could be developed on that basis.
Third, the team had a really cool name. With a really cool history attached to the name. Blue Bombers. What could it mean? Is this the “long bomb” pass enshrined in the very name of the team? A kind of team spirit rendered into the logo? But I learned that in 1935 a sport writer named Vince Leah dubbed the team the “Blue Bombers of Western football” – an imitation of Grantland Rice’s appellation “the Brown Bomber” for Joe Louis, the boxer. A team which actually adopted a writer’s metaphor! And what amazing history in that metaphor!
Having made my selection, I settled down to watch games in that first (for me) season of CFL football. I watched a few games but mostly from a decision to watch rather than from genuine excitement. But I learned a bit about how the game was played and began to appreciate the commentary provided by the sports journalists. I listened to the language, the words being used to describe what was happening on the field.
In the following year, I watched more games and developed a genuine affection for the game – eventually, years later, watching all of the league’s games involving all of the teams. And I learned what made the metaphors so compelling and meaningful. I decided that the game of Canadian football is often far more like life than many other sports. Particularly because the Canadian game is a bit dangerous, a bit messy, mostly based on the passion of a very few people, and deeply individual though simultaneously very dependent upon group traditions and ritual expectations.
My story of approaching and learning about football was essentially repeated when I decided to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is a book I’d read earlier in my life, became frustrated with and set aside. That is a sentiment that will often be found in discussions of the book. It typically alienates people on the first time it is picked up. Not on the first page, but eventually.
But, for the first time in my life, I purchased a motorcycle in 2014. I needed to learn how to ride. I wanted to understand more about riding and what made this inherently dangerous activity so compelling and interesting. Why is motorcycling so wrapped-up with ideas of freedom, adventure, confidence and self-understanding.
I also wanted to look at the book that kept popping up in my attention every now and then. I wanted to try again. So I bought another copy and read it. Indeed since 2014, I’ve probably read the book six or eight times. Maybe more. I’m not sure. In reading the book, I’ve developed an understanding of the complicated metaphor and narrative that Robert Pirsig, the author, has used. I’ve developed a respect and appreciation for riding a motorycle, for metaphors associated with riding and for Pirsig’s book.
Motorcycling, it seems, can be a bit dangerous, a bit messy, mostly based on the passion of a very few people, and deeply individual though simultaneously very dependent upon group traditions and ritual expectation.
Which brings me to reading several books about Zen in 2018 as a kind of follow-up activity. Particularly relevant to this article is Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a set of informal talks by Shunryo Suzuki. Suzuki is credited with responsibility for founding the San Francisco Zen Centre and with much popularization of Zen in North America, where he taught from 1959 until his death in 1971. The San Franciso Zen Centre is where Robert Pirsig’s son, Chris, was mugged and killed in 1979. He was 22. And he appears as a central metaphor/character in Pirsig’s book.
What amazing history. What amazing metaphors.
In Suzuki’s book, you can find this passage,
We say, “To hear the sound of one hand clapping.” Usually the sound of clapping is made with two hands, and we think that clapping with one hand makes no sound at all. But actually, one hand is sound. Even though you do not hear it, there is sound. If you clap with two hands, you can hear the sound. But if sound did not already exist before you clapped, you could not make the sound. Before you make it there is sound. Because there is sound, you can make it, and you can hear it. Sound is everywhere. If you just practice it, there is sound. Do not try to listen to it. If you do not listen to it, the sound is all over. Because you try to hear it, sometimes there is sound, and sometimes there is no sound. Do you understand? Even though you do not do anything, you have the quality of zazen always. But if you try to find it, if you try to see the quality, you have no quality.
Frankly, this can be the kind of baffle-gab that makes people shake their heads at Zen, philosophy, and yes, poetry. Suzuki’s use of the term “quality” should have particular resonance for anybody who has pursued Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance all the way through. A Metaphysics of Quality is the established term for Pirsig’s philosophy. And indeed, Pirsig’s metaphysics is often dismissed as baffle-gab.
But it is unreasonable to take an excerpt out of its context. Suzuki also writes, “If your practice is good, without being aware of it you will become proud of your practice.” and a few pages earlier reminds that “In order to find out how dough became perfect bread, he [the Buddha] made it over and over again, until he became quite successful. That was his practice.” He is talking about putting the right kind of effort into things to succeed.
Zen, it seems, can be a bit dangerous, a bit messy, mostly based on the passion of a very few people, and deeply individual though simultaneously very dependent upon group traditions and ritual expectation.
And if you’ve followed this article all the way, through, what does this have to do with poetry?
First, the metaphors. At every turn, there are tremendous and deeply-rooted metaphors. Often they are overt and obvious. Perhaps even ugly and awkward sometimes. But still they are effective and still there are often deep metaphorical patterns and connections in our lives (and in our poetry!) if only we look for them.
Second, substitute the word “poetry” for some of the other words. Try replacing “Zen” with “poetry” and “practice” with “writing”.
If your writing is good, without being aware of it you will become proud of your writing. In order to find out how writing became perfect poetry, he wrote it over and over again until he became quite successful. This was his writing.
Now try thinking of the long journeys that one can take with an interest. It can take years to cultivate an interest in football, in motorcycles, in Zen and in poetry. It takes years of repetition to perform the physical or mental exercises of football, motorcycle riding, Zen or poetry.
And, as with the metaphor of the sound of one hand clapping. Poetry is indeed everywhere and exists in the form of the language we inherit from our culture. It is there and we must hear it and we must become good over time without even being aware of it. To attain effortlessness, first there must be effort.
Poetry, it seems, can be a bit dangerous, a bit messy, mostly based on the passion of a very few people, and deeply individual though simultaneously very dependent upon group traditions and ritual expectation.
- Eric Adriaans’ Poetry Showcase
- Martin Heidegger’s The Thinker As Poet
- Poetry Isn’t Elsewhere
- Poetry is Everywhere
References and Citations
All content on www.ericadriaans.com, the Erickipedia, is updated and revised based on new information, further consideration, reader feedback and whim. To recommend updates, provide feedback or comment please use the contact and feedback form.
- Original draft: July 30, 2018